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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Paranoia, genocide and the history books

Paranoia, genocide and the history books

T he war of the academics over the human rights records of subsequent Cambodian regimes

rages on. Here, Steven Heder counters Michael Vickery's views on history -

and historians.

I welcome this opportunity to respond to the rejoinder by Michael Vickery (PPP, Aug

11-24, 1995) to my review of Ben Kiernan's contributions to the monograph Genocide

and Democracy in Cambodia, and thus to clarify a few of the historical, intellectual

and moral issues Vickery has raised in this and other recent correspondence.

As readers will have noticed, Vickery believes that everything written about Cambodia

that he thinks is true has been pirated from him, while imagining everything he thinks

is false ultimately reflects the propaganda of the great powers, their proxies and

their naive dupes. In fact, he seems to be losing touch with events and perhaps with

reality as well. David Ashley was rightly surprised that Vickery was unfamiliar with

the official publicity that surrounded the signing of political and military alliances

between FUNCINPEC and the Cambodian People's Party in late 1991. It appears that

Vickery has also not followed closely the contents of such core scholarly periodicals

as the Journal of Asian Studies. If he were more up on such things, he would know

that I published a review of all the contents of Genocide and Democracy

in Cambodia there in 1994 (Vol 53, No 3). Within the space limits imposed, I expressed

my views on the scholarly debate about the extent of applicability of the legal concept

of genocide to events in Cambodia between 1975 and 1978. Contrary to what Vickery

suggests, my conclusion was that those like Kiernan who argue that there was a genocide

against several categories of Cambodians are closer to being right than those like

Vickery who believe the contrary.

I continue, as I have for many years, fully to support the principle of bringing

to justice those responsible for political killings, torture and other gross violations

of human rights in Cambodia and elsewhere, including those responsible for acts of

genocide when the Communist Party of Kampuchea was in power.

It was for this reason that from its conception I contributed as an advisor to the

activities of the Cambodian Documentation Commission, the first human rights-oriented

organization dedicated to application of the Genocide Convention to Cambodia, and

the one which during the 1980s did the most to promote this goal among the public

and with governments, inter-governmental organizations and non-governmental organizations

all over the world. It was also for this reason that I was very pleased about the

enactment by the United States Congress of the Cambodian Genocide Justice Act and

the creation of an Office of Cambodian Genocide Investigations to submit relevant

data to any properly-constituted national or international penal tribunal that may

be convened to formally hear and judge a case against those members of the former

Communist Party of Kampuchea national political and military leadership accused of

genocide in Cambodia. I have offered my full cooperation with the efforts of the

Cambodian Genocide Program toward this end, and despite my clearly-stated differences

with its Director Ben Kiernan on a variety of other issues, including his seriously

flawed record with regard to human rights matters more generally, I am opposed to

efforts to have him removed as head of the program. I believe that regardless of

the views he held about the Communist Party of Kampuchea while it was in power, he

should not be punished but rewarded for his desire to contribute by the means set

forth in the Genocide Act to the Cambodian and U.S. commitment, enshrined in the

human rights provisions of the Paris Agreements, to "take effective measures

to ensure that the policies and practices of the past shall never be allowed to return".

I still have hopes to see evidence that he is also prepared to contribute to other

"special measures to assure protection of human rights" for which the Paris

Agreements call in Cambodia, in order more globally "to ensure respect for and

observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms" there and "to support

the right of all Cambodian citizens to undertake activities which would promote and

protect human rights and fundamental freedoms".

I am not so optimistic about Vickery in this regard. To my knowledge, he has never

supported or assisted the work of any bone fide human rights organization, Cambodian

or international, that has been active in promoting the protection of human rights

in Cambodia or elsewhere. Indeed, his clear record with regard to Cambodia is one

of consistent objection to their activities. By his own admission, he rejects some

of the most basic tenets of international human rights and humanitarian law, notably

the concept of universal jurisdiction, according to which the perpetrators of the

most serious human rights violations, such as political murder and torture, can legitimately

be brought to justice anywhere.

Vickery denies that past U.S. Government employment should be used as a criterion

or analytic device in explaining why people understand Cambodian politics in the

way that they do. As well he might, since he is the only American scholar of Cambodia

who has a past as a United States intelligence operative. During his military service,

he reportedly did counter-intelligence work aimed at the Soviet Union. Ironically,

while the official American nature of his past employment appears to be not directly

relevant to understanding his current world-view, his spy-catcher background does

seem to have some explanatory value in this regard. Those familiar with the full

corpus of his work cannot fail to be struck by the extent to which his mind-set is

similar to that of the likes of James Jesus Angleton of the CIA and Peter Wright

of MI5, who became obsessed with bizarre theories about the imagined conspiracies

of the "moles" they suspected their political enemies had planted here,

there and everywhere. His grotesquely ridiculous insinuations that, for example,

the United States or those he believes are somehow its instruments ginned up violence

against Khieu Samphan and Son Sen in 1991 or against FUNCINPEC in 1992 and 1993 in

order to blame it on Hun Sen are on a par with the Angleton's and Wright's paranoid

belief that the late British Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson was a KGB spy who

had risen to his post via the assassination of a fellow senior Labour figure. The

problem with the cowardly and cryptic heavy hints that Vickery constantly drops about

such matters is not, as he whines, that the evidence for his suspicions is not "firmly

enough established for the requirements of an academic publication", but that

it exists only in his mind. Vickery's poacher turned game-keeper transformation must

also he understood in terms of the dilute Stalinist tradition of "history as

conspiracy" that he appears to have increasingly mimicked in the course of his

love affair with the People's Republic of Kampuchea and State of Cambodia. The justification

that this political and intellectual tradition provides for human rights violations

is well-known and rather well-illustrated by Vickery's case.

In an attempt to peddle one of his crackpot conspiracy theories, Vickery asserts

that what he dubs the "special reports" about Cambodia on which I worked

for Amnesty International were "in startling contrast" to its entries in

its Annual Report about the country and "contrary to countries more favored

by the US regime". This is utter nonsense. First, I was just as responsible

for the Annual Report entries as for the "special reports". Second, all

the work I did on Cambodia for Amnesty International was written according to a mandate

and to standards identical with that which was reflected in my work for the organization

on other Asian countries, including Thailand, Burma, China, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore,

Brunei and Vietnam, regardless of the configuration of their international relations.

This is obvious from any serious examination of Amnesty International's mandate and

standards and a comparison of all these works, which Vickery clearly has not attempted.

It could be attested to by a wide variety of current and former Amnesty International

officials with direct knowledge of my work, if he would take the proper historian's

care to combine detailed documentary research with interviewing of primary sources.

But while Vickery may be credited with practicing his historian's craft in a professional

manner in other areas, this is not one of them.

This is part of the reason why Vickery has so many facts (or insinuations) wrong.

For example, Amnesty did not release its reports on Cambodia in the 1980s to coincide

with inter-governmental or non-governmental meetings and thus as part of some sort

of great-power plot aimed at the Phnom Penh government. The timing was dictated by

production schedules and competing events, such as the urgent need to deal with torture

of Cambodian refugees by military authorities in Thailand, which delayed the publication

of Amnesty's most substantial account of human rights violations in the People's

Republic of Kampuchea (Kampuchea: Political Imprisonment and Torture, June 1987).

That report dealt in full with the 1986 decree-law on arrest (not, as Vickery mistakenly

says, on criminal procedure), and it called for the effective implementation of those

of the legislation's provisions incorporating human rights safeguards, while pointing

out the many areas in which improvements were needed. Subsequent events have fully

justified this approach, and the 1988 article to which Vickery refers was only one

of several official recognitions that the provisions of the law were being violated.

These People's Republic of Kampuchea admissions and new legal and other measures

to remedy the human rights situation in Cambodia were described and welcomed in subsequent

Amnesty International publications on which I worked, which also included recommendations

for ways in which to make further improvements. (Those who are interested may look

at, for example, Cambodia: Recent Human Rights Developments, Dec 1990.)

A most important fact concerning Amnesty International about which Vickery appears

to be totally ignorant is that its researchers and even the executive directors of

its many national sections do not decide the organization's mandates or policies.

It is not the kind of institution to which Vickery is attracted: that is, it is not

one in which such decisions are imposed from above. Rather, it is a democratic movement

with a membership and an elected representational structure in which policy-making

power is invested. Researchers at its international secretariat and the national

executive directors are like civil servants, employed to execute the decisions made

by the representatives of the membership. Of course, individual members and employees

do have personal views, and in some cases express them privately in non-Amnesty outlets,

like newspapers. This is what William F. Schulz has done in his 1994 article. However,

it is absurd to suggest that Amnesty publications from the 1980s were out of line

with organizational standards then because of the personal views of one Amnesty official

now.

Equally fallacious is Vickery's insinuation that the "special reports"

to which he refers were "biased misrepresentation of the human rights situation

in Cambodia" because they did not highlight the historical circumstances in

which violations were then being committed. He is unhappy that Amnesty did not concentrate

on the excuse of circumstances to condone the abuses, as he like all typical apologists

for repressive regimes invariably do. Of course, the real reason for Amnesty's stance

in this regard was not bias, but the impartiality embodied in its principled stance

that, as Vickery puts it, "human rights violations were human rights violations"

and "standards were absolute". A corollary position, proclaimed at every

opportunity by Amnesty, was its refusal to grade governments according to their record

on human rights. Thus, instead of attempting comparisons it has concentrated on trying

to end the specific violations of human rights in each case. In practice, what this

means is trying always to come to the aid of today's victims, regardless of whether

yesterday's government, neighboring governments or current opposition groups are

better or worse than the administration of the day. As a historian and a political

actor, Vickery is free to disagree with this approach, to argue against it in print

or even to join Amnesty International and put his case to experienced human rights

advocates and campaigners. He may even be right.

However, I continue to think he is wrong and hope readers will ponder the moral deficiencies

of his logic. According to his line of reasoning, no one should be concerned about

human rights violations in today's Kingdom of Cambodia because despite all the defects

and the badly deteriorating situation, there are still fewer cases of arbitrary detention

of prisoners of conscience and other political prisoners, of torture, of political

killing and of death in detention than under any previous Cambodian political regime.

To hell with the (relatively smaller if growing number of) victims! At least things

are better than they were under the Khmer Rouge!

Finally, to return to Vickery's rejoinder to my review of Kiernan, he is wrong to

maintain that Kiernan wrote mostly about genocide. Rather, he dealt mostly with broader

political and international relations questions related to the Paris Agreements.

Vickery tries to criticize me for agreeing with Kiernan on a number of fronts, but

he is totally silent when it comes to confronting the most important planks of my

argument: that Kiernan was mistaken to believe that the Paris Agreements were designed

to favor the Partie of Democratic Kampuchea, and incorrect to maintain that through

their implementation, it managed to make large-scale gains.

Moreover, I did not say that Kiernan's review of David P Chandler was "thinly

disguised", but that he tried to dress up a political smear tactic as sociology

of knowledge. Kiernan did not simply assert the existence of an endemic "anti-Vietnamese

bias" within Cambodian studies, but specifically accused Chandler of such prejudice

and followed this with his tendentious remarks about the supposed effects of association

with the United States Government. Readers may look at Kiernan's text to draw their

own conclusions about what he was trying to say. (Readers may also wonder what sort

of quantitative methods go into the dubious lament in Kiernan's review that "Cambodia

studies" is "numerically dominated" by current and former government

and United Nations officials and the similarly debatable claim by Vickery and others

who signed the letter in the Phnom Penh Post professing to vouch for Kiernan that

they and their students constitute "the majority who publish in the field".

Something seems not quite to add up.)

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